Three of Michigan’s linebackers — Devin Gil, Jordan Glasgow and Josh Ross — spoke to the media this week. Each time, the first question was almost preordained, some variation of, This defense has lost a lot. How can you replace it? Or more specifically for their position: How can you do what Devin Bush did?
If any took exception to the insinuation that they simply aren’t as good as Bush, none showed it. Bush was something of a generational talent at Michigan, moving sideline to sideline with the speed and precision of a low-flying aircraft. He papered over holes to the tune of 172 career tackles, a consensus All-American selection last year that morphed into a top-10 selection in April’s NFL Draft. It almost doesn’t matter who is tasked with replacing him because no matter what, there will likely be a drop-off — which speaks more to Bush than anyone else.
That is the unsavory task Ross, a junior, finds himself staring down. He spent last year locked in a positional battle with Gil to play next to Bush at the Will position. Now, he’ll be in the middle, carrying all the responsibility that comes with it.
“I handle (expectations) well,” Ross said. “I’ll say this, playing with a guy like D-Bush, that dude’s one of the best players I’ve ever been around. So, learning from him, kinda passing the torch into this year for me has been a big deal. So I’m ready to go.”
Glasgow noted that Saturday’s opener against Middle Tennessee State won’t be Ross’ first time at the position — he played when Bush rotated out last year, and started last year’s Peach Bowl against Florida when Bush skipped what amounted to an exhibition. That game, though, served as more of a warning for what the Wolverines were losing than anything else. The Gators ran the ball down their throats for 258 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. They went for 428 total yards and romped to a 41-15 win.
That shouldn’t be attributed entirely to Bush’s absence, or Rashan Gary’s decision to sit in advance of his own training for the draft. An amalgamation of factors contributed, foremost among them that Michigan — four weeks after Ohio State killed their chances of winning a trophy in the most emphatic way possible — simply didn’t seem to want to be in Atlanta. But it was a harrowing reminder of what things could look like without Bush.
And now, until proven otherwise, everything about this defense will be viewed through the lens of its losses.
“I don’t think that would be correct in any shape or form,” Glasgow said of the perception that Michigan will be worse than last year. “Every year, every defense loses big people.”
He’s not wrong, and he’s not wrong in pointing out the Wolverines have managed to weather worse losses under Don Brown. In three years with him running the defense, Michigan has never ranked worse than 9th in defensive S&P+, despite losing nearly every starter between 2016 and ‘17. If you want optimism, that’s your fallback. If not, look to the bowl game.
Ross has been named as more of a leader, and must be just that. His new position requires vocality, and a more complete understanding of the defense. “Something goes wrong, it’s kinda on you,” Ross said. “Cause you’re out there kinda directing everything.”
As for the spot Ross occupied last year, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh named Gil, Glasgow, Cam McGrone and Jordan Anthony as part of the mix. McGrone, along with Ross, also earned a mention as one of the most improved players on defense.
Whoever ends up playing will need to do more than Gil and Ross combined for last year. Any mistakes Bush covered up for last season are now more likely to be exposed, the ripple effect of the loss.
“(Bush) was able to cover up for some mistakes of the linebackers, but we’ve grown as a linebacker room as individuals,” Glasgow said. “I feel that we’ll be able to cover each other. We might not have a top-10 pick in the linebacker room now, but that doesn't mean that we can’t be as effective as linebackers, like, in total.
“As everyone improves, I feel that we’ll be just as good as we were last year.”